It seems an awful long time ago. Peter Reid’s first season as a Premier manager of Sunderland. We had Man United at home and beat them 2-1. Getting back late to Kings Cross, I couldn’t be bothered with the Tube and found myself in the back of a West Ham supporter’s taxi. “Yeah, you might have won today but you’re still going down,” he said. “You were so bad when you lost 2-0 at our place that I don’t see how you can survive.” That was March 8 1997, though he might have been talking about last Saturday. On May 11, a limp performance at Wimbledon, where we need a win to stay up, made the cabbie’s prediction come true. Alex Kunawicz, another of my Abu Dhabi colleagues to offer a fascinating match preview, is a United fan who actually comes from Manchester – a mile or so from Old Trafford, and his dad saw Duncan Edwards play. It’s full of detail and, as you’d hope from a sports journalist who previously worked on Match of the Day, sharp insight. We must hope his prediction, or at least the second part of it, comes true: a 2-0 win for United on Saturday, a finish in 16th place for us…
Traditional club who wear red, white and black seeks similar to discuss what it’s like to have annoying neighbours who bleat on about how great their fans are while achieving zilch.
Let’s get straight into your questions:
This season for you: just another year in the history of a football superpower. Does it ever get boring?
No, because I remember going for so long without a title while Liverpool were winning loads in the Eighties. I’m old enough to remember when we were a decent cup team and that was all, so I never take success for granted.
I’m trying to savour it while it lasts as I don’t think anyone knows what’s going to happen when Fergie goes – no matter how good a squad he leaves behind. Recent defeats to Liverpool and Fulham show that you just can’t be complacent and I’m a firm believer that you should appreciate strong opponents. I just don’t think there would be as much joy or excitement if you won the title by a canter every season, but then again I guess that’s an easy thing for me to say.
This season for us has become yet another relegation scrap. Do we flatter to deceive, or should we just accept our place in the pecking order?
I thought there was so most positive energy behind Sunderland at the start of 2007/8, with big money signings, Roy Keane seemingly the brightest managerial prospect for some time and that opening day win over Spurs. But, for whatever reason, things just didn’t click, which the manager has to take responsibility for. You only won consecutive games once (well, technically twice when you won three in a row in March / April) and that stop-start form’s continued this season. Last season you were joint-third lowest scorers and this season you’re third lowest scorers. I don’t think it’s the strikers that are the problem, although I know Kenwyne Jones has lost his touch of late, but there seems to be no goalscoring support from midfield. I think there’s such a fine line between a team like you and a team like Wigan, who are 8th, and I think that difference is good management, attitude and confidence. They may have a slightly stronger squad but overall there’s not too much in it. Look at Fulham, last season they avoided relegation on the final day, this year they are in the top ten. So I don’t think it’s unrealistic that you could do that, IF you make the right singings and Ricky Sbragia can stamp his mark on the team. I think Sunderland have made a lot of bad moves in the transfer market in the past two years and it’ll take time to rectify this.
What did you think of our respective clubs’ prospects before season started? Has your view changed re either side?
I thought we’d fight for the title with Chelsea while I felt Sunderland would be lower mid-table as I assumed Hull, Stoke and WBA would go straight back down. Whatever problems there were last season carried over , and, for whatever reason, Keane just didn’t seem to be able to right the ship. I think we’ll win the league, although Liverpool’s spirit has impressed me, and I you’ll finish 16th.
When did you last see a SAFC v Man Utd game home or away, and what happened? Any other memorable games between us?
I was at the 5-0 just before Christmas 1996 when Eric Cantona scored that brilliant chip. I remember watching the reverse fixture on Match of the Day – you beat us 2-1 at Roker Park. It was the last time we played there. I think a lot of new stadiums give visiting teams an easier time than the likes of Roker, Maine Road, Highbury, etc.
What do you think of the Stadium of Light assuming you’ve been. Or Roker Park before that.? And Sunderland itself?
I’ve never been into the city but I’ve been to the SoL twice – both when I was working. I spent a romantic Valentine’s Day watching you draw 1-1 with Birmingham in the 5th round of the FA Cup. It was a Saturday tea-time kick-off and the crowd was 25,000. There were no flights back to London so we got a private jet – with a complimentary Ferrero Rocher for every passenger. Who says the licence fee isn’t well spent? The other time I went was for Euro 2004 qualifier between England and Turkey in April 2003. Wayne Rooney’s first start for England. He was great and England won 2-0, but sadly it’s the chanting from that day that most people remember. I’d love to go back and see it full of Sunderland fans – as it’s certainly one of the best new grounds that I’ve been to.
What about the signings each club made this season?
I think part of Sunderland’s misfortune is that quite a few of their signings have not panned out as expected, or just not been up to the level required. Sunderland Teemu Tainio – talent is there, but think he’d excel far more back in France Pascal Chimbonda and El Hadji Diouf were gone so quickly but I think the former only plays well at Spurs, and the latter only plays well for Big Sam. Steed Malbranque – I always liked this guy, although I don’t think he’s that effective anymore David Healy – Nice lad, signed for Preston when I was working there as a press officer. Still, more of a Championship / international striker than a Premier League one – which is weird. Anton Ferdinand – Has all the natural gifts, like his brother, but I always think he’s got a mistake in him each match, and he hasn’t got Vidic supporting him George McCartney – reliable and versatile, I think you need some more guys like him. Djibril Cisse – Good player, think you need to hold onto him if you can Tal Ben-Haim – solid Calum Davenport – don’t think he’ll ever develop as was originally though United Dimitar Berbatov’s been as advertised – very good, if a little moody. I think if Zoran Tosic pans out next season then Nani’s future doesn’t look to rosy, despite his versatility.
Do you regard Man City, Liverpool or anyone else much as we regard Newcastle? Or are you more grown-up about such things?
For me, Liverpool are our main rivals. In the Eighties we wanted their trophies and they still couldn’t handle the fact United remained the most popular club. As always, antithapy reaches its heights when your clubs are battling each other. Leeds, big rivals 10 years ago, are just an afterthought at the moment, but in time, who knows? Of course the rivalry with City is strong – last season they beat us twice but it was hardly the end of the world as we ended up with two trophies.
Roy Keane; saint or psychopath?
A very complex man, who I think finds it difficult to handle things when he’s not fully in control of matters, or when things are not going well. In his last day’s at United he blamed others, when I think he was most upset at his waning ability to influence games. At Sunderland, I think he showed real weakness by walking out rather then trying to work through a tough time, especially when he appeared to have the backing of the board. Part of it was maybe that he’d only really been in that situation once before in his career – when he was with Nottingham Forest and still every young. Tony Cascarino said he’d be amazed if Keane manages again and I agree, although that’s not to say he won’t try. But I just think what he did at Sunderland, after propelling them so high so quickly, revealed a huge mental flaw.
Memories of other players and/or management linked to both clubs?
Johnny Evans seems to be developing into a decent young player. I used to love Dwight Yorke, as much for his smile as his goals, and he made Andy Cole smile occasionally too. Losing Kieran Richardson and DANNY Simpson were not that bigger deal for us, but I think Richardson can be a decent player – when he wants to be. I always used to feel sorry for Paul McShane, as every goal I saw you conceding last season seemed to be down to him. I was working on the episode of Football Focus when you lost 7-1 at Everton. Carlton Palmer said of McShane’s performance on air “he’s had a holocaust”, and then wondered why the programme’s editor, a Sunderland fan, was a tad upset. FYI – the editor of Match of the Day is Boro.
Do you have any anecdotes from the Best/Charlton/Law days, or the Busby era, passed to you from relatives, older friends, etc? Are those the era that produced United greats, or do today’s stars compare favourably?
My dad used to see Duncan Edwards going to Old Trafford – either on the bus or walking. It’s amazing how much has changed. My dad was also at a match versus Arsenal on a very foggy day. United had a corner so Harry Gregg, the United keeper, used the time wisely bu running to the halfway line, laying out the Arsenal centre-forward with one punch, and then jogging back to his goal. The joy of no TV cameras. Because of the lack of footage we’ve never seen every bit of genius by George Best, Denis Law and Bobby Charlton, but also we’ve never been properly able to analyse their flaws. Modern footballers don’t have that luxury, and while it’s great to be able to watch every kick I also miss that bid of mystery, about players and teams you’ve never heard of before seeing them play your team. There are very few surprises left in football, so when something happens like Federico Macheda scoring v Aston Villa, I think you must cherish it. The really shame about the Busby Babes was that no-one got the chance to see what they could have achieved – I think that’s what upset people the most. Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes and Gary Neville have spent, combined, over 40 years in the first-team. I think their longevity and importance to the side during that time makes them comparable with players from any era. But since those guys came through with David Beckham, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville, I’m still waiting for a real homegrown star. Don’t get me wrong, Wes Brown, Darren Fletcher and John O’Shea have all proven their worth but they are not guaranteed starters, although they’ve all played far more games than you may suspect. I don’t know if he counts as “homegrown” but I think Rafael has the potential to be our right-back for the next decade.
Best player you have ever seen in a United shirt?
Peter Schmeichel is the best keeper I’ve seen in my lifetime. To me, he redefined how goalie’s play – charging off his line and spreading his arms and legs as wide as possible. He was so agile for a guy of his size, although he was not perhaps as big as people remember him as. He’s on the only guy I’ve seen play who I’d give a 10/10. Ronaldo certainly deserved 10/10 for last season but I think when you’re defining the best, it has to be done consistently over a sustained period of time. He’s actually been very, very good this season and is joint-top scorer in the Premier League, but people will now think that if he doesn’t score 42 goals in a season then he’s been a disappointment. My favourite player is Giggs. The guy’s a freak – to spend over half your life in the first-team, and to redefine yourself as a player and be able to play a variety of different roles in the latter stages of your career is incredible. Other faves, in no particular order, Kanchelskis, Stam, McGrath, Hughes, Irwin, Scholes, Whiteside, G Neville, Robson, Yorke , Beckham and Vidic.
Ralph Milne – Scottish winger (1988-91). The centre-back William Prunier only played two games for us, the second of which was a 4-1 defeat at Spurs.
Club vs country. Who wins for you?
As you may be aware, most United fans have little time for England. Personally, I find it hard to get too excited about friendlies and qualifiers, but I do really enjoy the major finals. Having said that, one of the best things about Euro 2008 was just being able to sit back and concentrate on the football, rather than the hysteria. You think about how much time, money and emotion fans invest in their clubs on a daily basis, I think the vast majority of people would put club before country, but that’s not to say that they don’t cheer for England. I’d love us to win the World Cup in my lifetime, but the best teams and the best football is played by clubs now, not countries. I think Italy and Spain would be extremely strong teams in the Premier League but there’s no way you could say they’d be certanties to win the title.
After the defeats to Liverpool and Fulham you must have been pleased to have games v out-of-sorts Aston Villa and us?
Well, United managed to be even more out of sorts than Villa for a lot of that game. I think Macheda’s goal will prove to be decisive in the title race. To win a game like that up was such a massive-boost for us, and I can imagine equally deflating for Liverpool. I can’t lie – I am pleased to be playing you guys as I know you’re a little out of sorts at the moment. Although, after the awful performance at Fulham we can’t just expect to turn up and be handed three points. We did there and we paid for it. I also think you may be looking at your matches after that – Hull (h), WBA (a).
Who will win? How will you keep tabs? Score?
I think the victory over Villa was the turning point of the season and I’d be amazed if we don’t win. We’ve not lost to you in 13 league games and have never been beaten at the Stadium of Light….just sayin’. I’ll probably be keeping tabs on the game via my Blackberry as my in-laws are visiting at the moment and we have plans for Saturday, so I don’t think I’m going to be able watch the match live. I’d go for a 2-0 win, with Vidic and Fletcher scoring.
* Alex Kunawicz on Alex Kunawicz:
I live in Abu Dhabi, capital of the United Arab Emirates, with my wife. I’m the sports content editor of The National newspaper, meaning I’m in charge of organising contributions from the likes of Gabriele Marcotti, Simon Kuper, David Conn, Tim Vickery, Gavin Hamilton and Martn Kelner.
Before moving to the UAE in Jan 2008, I spent seven years working for BBC Sport on programmes such as Match of the Day and Grandstand.
I was brought up in Stretford only a mile or two from Old Trafford, and my parents still live there.
My first United game was a 2-1 win over Swansea in May 1983. I went to home matches until I went to university, but sadly most of my trips back to Old Trafford since then have been work-related.
I’ve actually seen far more games since moving out to the Gulf than I did at home as I to get weekends off and the time difference is more accommodating for me.
I’m on the season ticket waiting list and hopefully I’ll be near the front of the queue when we return to the UK, whenever that will be.